The California Fish and Game Commission on Wednesday postponed a controversial decision on whether to afford gray wolves protection under the state's Endangered Species Act, giving itself another 90 days to consider the matter.
After listening to a spirited 2 1/2 hours of public comment in an overflowing meeting room in Ventura, the five-member commission voted unanimously to take up the issue at its next meeting in June.
The decision regarding listing was prompted by the arrival in late 2011 of a young male gray wolf in Northern California. Wildlife officials believe that the wolf, known as OR-7, has established most of its home range in Oregon but makes regular forays into California, where it was known to be as recently as February.
Wolves historically ranged widely in California. But by the late 1920s they had been hunted and trapped to the point that none was known to populate the state.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife,however, has estimated that it is reasonable to conclude California will host a functional wolf population within 10 years.
The question before the commission is how to manage the wolves — as a threatened or endangered species with prohibitions against hunting or capture, or as a non-game species that can be killed under some circumstances. The state also could fashion a hybrid plan that stopped short of listing but still offered protections.
A group of stakeholders has been meeting for more than a year, working to advise California officials on a management plan that would be acceptable to conservation groups as well as livestock and hunting interests.
State Fish and Wildlife officials in February submitted a 255-page wolf status review that recommended against listing, advice the commission appeared to be prepared to take. But members deferred the vote when it was pointed out that even as some 60 members of the public signed in to voice an opinion Wednesday, many interested Northern California residents had been unable to attend the meeting.
Complicating the state's decision is a pending proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove protections for all gray wolves in the lower 48 states. That decision is not expected to come until sometime next year.
Should federal protections be dropped, California has the authority to ensure the wolves' safety even if they are not listed as a state-protected species, said Chuck Bonham, director of the Fish and Wildlife Department.